As the Supreme Court deadline for Canada to pass assisted dying legislation comes and goes, medical and legal experts in Nova Scotia hope the federal government will take the time to create effective legislation, rather than rush through with the proposed Bill C-14.
The Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision ruled it was no longer illegal for physicians to help a patient end their life under certain circumstances.
The Court gave Ottawa until June 6 to come up with legislation to guide medically-assisted death. However, Bill C-14 has not been passed and is currently being pored over by the Senate’s legal committee.
Sheila Sperry, who heads Nova Scotia’s branch of Dying With Dignity, is watching the developments closely.
Four years ago, her husband Drew passed away after a tough battle with ALS.
“It was horrendous to watch him go from being a very healthy, very enthusiastic, very involved person to being someone who couldn’t eat, couldn’t roll over, who couldn’t speak so people could understand him,” Sperry said.
That experience shaped her desire to see legislation that gives patients an option her husband never had.
“It’s to give the person who is suffering and the family who is watching the benefit of knowing that death will come peacefully,” she said.
“It will come when you want it to come. But it’s also letting you live whatever you got, whether that be two weeks — or eight years in my husband’s case — not having to worry about what’s going to happen it next.”
Bill C-14 too restrictive
But, Sperry is critical of Bill C-14 and finds it too restrictive, especially since it limits physician assisted death to those whose natural deaths are “reasonably foreseeable.”
She’d like to see meaningful amendments made to the bill that will align it with the Carter decision and provide clearer guidelines for physicians.
In the absence of legislation, the Carter decision has effectively become law of the land.
“It would be better to have no law than this law because this law takes away people’s rights. Whereas as long as we have no law, people have Carter,” said Jocelyn Downie, a health and law professor at Dalhousie University who specializes in physician assisted dying and ethics.
“The Carter decision from the Supreme Court said it’s unconstitutional to have an absolute ban on access to medical assistance on dying for this group of people and they drew a circle … and the government went and shrunk the circle. So there are people who are inside the Supreme Court’s circle who aren’t going to get access, so it’s unconstitutional. It violates their rights.”
In the meantime, the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Nova Scotia has developed a standard of practice on medically assisted dying, much like other medical regulators in the country.
Patients who have two doctors agree they meet the criteria will be able to access physician assisted death.
“The Nova Scotia Health Authority in particular, our college, through a working group with many appropriate stakeholders have developed an approach and eligible patients will be able to avail themselves of this service from willing physicians,” said Dr. Gus Grant, the college’s registrar and CEO.